All Hat, Some Cattle

In search of the authentic spirit of Fort Worth.
Randal Ford

Dawson Granade loves Fort Worth. His shirt from a local barbecue joint reads “Life’s too short to live in Dallas.” Twice a day, six days a week, Dawson piles visitors from Chicago, Poughkeepsie, and Tokyo into his Suburban and tools around town, spooling out Fort Worth’s history as he negotiates traffic and indicates sites of historical note. It is, he said, “the best goll-darn tour in Texas.”

Parked by the Tarrant County courthouse one December morning, Dawson gestured at the location of the original fort, now occupied by the county jail and a sad park that’s cordoned off with chain link. Beyond it, the Trinity River snaked gentle and lovely past downtown.

“They came, those early pioneers, and looked over the bluff and said, ‘This is it,’ ” Dawson proclaimed. “ ‘This is where I want to start my life.’ ”

A cop car slowed and glided past the idling Suburban. Emblazoned on the patrol car’s door was “Where the West Begins,” Fort Worth’s enduring motto, which I’ve known since childhood. I thought about that for a moment. Other cities have “To Protect and To Serve” on their police cars. It’s a reassuring statement; very solid, very safe. Fort Worth’s slogan is almost magically racier. Where the West begins. Anything could happen in a place like that.

The city’s Western heritage is legit. After an 1843 treaty declared that Indians could do as they pleased west of the Trinity River, a military party was sent to establish a new fort near the confluence of the West and Clear forks to make sure they stayed on the right side. Simon Ferrar, a member of that party, wrote of the day they arrived in 1849.

“We passed … through a wild and beautiful country,” he said, “inhabited only by Indians, wild or mustang horses, innumerable quantities of deer, wolves, and wild turkeys.”

Not much sign of wild turkeys these days in downtown Fort Worth, nor of the post-Confederacy cowboys who pushed their herds along the Eastern and Chisholm trails, stopping in Fort Worth to knock the trail dust off and stock supplies for the long drive to Kansas. Thoughtful entrepreneurs opened bathhouses, restaurants, mercantile stores, barbershops, bars, and brothels, with the liveliest action centered in an eighteen-block part of town beguilingly called Hell’s Half Acre. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid routinely holed up there, where the city’s convention center sits now.

“The ladies of the night were called ‘soiled doves,’ ” Dawson explained. “It was gambling halls, saloons, and bordellos. This place was popping—the Paris of the Plains.”

Indeed, on the prairie beyond Fort Worth, no other city lay for miles and miles. Along with the gunslingers, cowboys, and rascally ne’er-do-wells, Fort Worth’s burbling civic potential drew steadier, ambitious,

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